Defensive end Demarcus Lawrence of the Dallas Cowboys is the unicorn of the free agent market. He is an elite pass rusher that is actually even more disruptive against the run game. If he becomes available the Lions should be lined up to break the bank. There will be no shortage of suitors for Lawrence because he is young and productive. He ended the 2017 season with 15 sacks and 58 tackles. He was ninth in the NFL in tackles for loss with 18, and fifth in quarterback hits with 27. Of course, nobody that good gets to free agency without baggage, but Lawrence is the best of the free agent pass rushers
Why He Might Be Available
There are a few reasons that Lawrence may be available. The first is that the Cowboys drafted his replacement last year. Former Michigan Wolverine Taco Charleton recorded 19 tackles and three sacks in relief of Lawrence as a rookie. Another reason is that the Cowboys are not in the best place as far as the salary cap is concerned. the team only has $21 million in cap space for the 2018 season. The Cowboys can afford to keep Lawrence, but it would not allow them to improve their team in other areas. The more compelling reasons for letting Lawrence walk are his 2016 suspensions and injuries.
Lawrence served a four-game suspension for substance abuse to start the 2016 season. A four-game suspension indicates that it is not his first, and he is one night of too much fun from missing an entire season. That will scare some teams off, but likely not enough of them to lower his market value. The back surgery he required at the end of the 2016 season may be more concerning. Lawrence played in only nine of the 12 games he was eligible for and recorded only one sack in the entire 2016 season. Lawrence recorded eight sacks in 2015, his second in the NFL, and rebounded impressively in 2017. There will be multiple NFL teams willing to overlook these two issues. Lawrence will be only 26 years old when the 2018 season begins.
How Lawrence Wins
Lawrence takes short, choppy steps, often taking four steps before engaging a tackle on the edge. This allows him to accelerate rapidly and adjust his trajectory on the fly. That makes him unpredictable. He can transition from an outside rush to an inside rush or stunt in an instant. On stunts, he is capable of covering an immense amount of ground in a hurry. This also makes his second effort very dangerous in the pass rush. If an offensive tackle commits too fully while engaging him, Lawrence will change his tactics and leave that tackle flailing at nothing. Lawrence has excellent lateral agility and reads run/pass option plays very well. He is at home in open space which makes him very likely able to rush either from a two or three-point stance.
Lawrence is also stout at the point of attack, generally moving his man backward on running plays, particularly in short-yardage situations. He is strong enough to engage and push blockers into rushing lanes or to forcibly disengage to pursue. Offensive tackles have a grasp on Lawrence only as long as he lets them. His punch to disengage is elite, and he gains wrist control more often than any other free agent edge rusher. Lawrence fights through traffic as often as he goes around it, choosing the best tactic to thwart the blocking scheme almost every time. Lawrence causes problems whether he is on the front side or the back side of a play with his disruptive strength and quickness. There is a reason he was Pro Football Focus’ number three defensive end in 2017.
How Lawrence Loses
No player is perfect, though Lawrence was as close as any in 2017. He can get too eager to disrupt and lose contain at times. In pass rush situations he tends to become single-mindedly driven to get to the quarterback abandoning his gap responsibility. That is fine when he gets there, but disastrous when he does not. Lawrence also jumps offside occasionally, as most high-end pass rushers do. When he encounters a particularly agile offensive lineman, one who can match his footwork, Lawrence can be taken off balance during his rapid direction changes and attempts to forcibly disengage from the blocker.
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